The Point Where Death in Superhero Comics Became Meaningless

jean grey returns fantastic four 286

In 1986, Marvel made an arbitrary decision to reunite the original five X-Men into a new team and title, X-Factor. But to do this required bringing back Jean Grey, who had died at the conclusion of the Dark Phoenix Saga storyline in 1980. And this retcon pretty much single-handedly opened the floodgates for characters in superhero comic books coming back from death on a fairly regular basis.

uncanny x-men 136 jean grey dies

I think the statistics alone bear this out, but let’s briefly talk about why this happened and what the reversal of a major character’s death represented. I’m going to stick purely with Marvel comics for this but DC is a pretty close mirror who started killing off a lot of major characters in the early 90s only to eventually bring them back.

Modern Marvel continuity with superheroes began with Fantastic Four #1 in late 1961. And until 1986’s return of Jean Grey, death was a permanent force. As it should be. Even if comic books have soap opera elements and melodrama, which make them fun, some issues demand to be taken seriously. And death is one of them. If a kid loses a parent or a best friend, that person never comes back. Fiction needs to treat that issue just as seriously. Now, bringing back a villain is one thing – it’s part of that melodrama that comic books deal in and works on a metaphorical level to some degree: your problems will return until you learn to manage and deal with them properly. But bringing back a beloved character is a much bigger story move. And for over 20 years, Marvel treated it as such.

Before Jean Grey, they brought back exactly two characters that had died: Wonder Man and Elektra. And both appear to have been pre-planned stories which treated the death in a unique way as a plot point – Wonder Man returned as a being of energy (and was formerly a villain, so he was metaphorically reborn) and Elektra was revived due to the supernatural machinations of the evil ninja clan The Hand in an attempt to bring Elektra over to their side.

Meanwhile, Marvel had about 21 good/heroic characters die that have stayed dead. Some were part of hero’s motivating stories in their origins like Uncle Ben, the Ancient One or Ho Yinsen. Others were key deaths that went on to mark a major turning point for characters like the Namor losing Lady Dorma, Hulk losing Jarella or Peter Parker losing Gwen Stacy. Also, most of these deaths were not done in a cheap way to give heroes an extra boost of motivation but were the result (or the beginning) of an actual story.

Jean Grey’s return from death was very different. It was absolutely NOT intended from the start. Editor Jim Shooter believed that if the X-Men were to truly deal with the repercussions of Jean Grey turning into the Dark Phoenix and killing others, a price should be paid. It was decided Jean had to die for her crimes, and she did it as a noble sacrifice, momentarily coming to her senses enough to realize she was losing her mind and was a huge danger to others. She let herself die. It was her decision, not the actions of someone else. It was a tragic loss and the right way to end an epic story.

It also allowed for real growth of other characters, specifically Cyclops. Chris Claremont wrote him a happy ending. He found true love with Madelyne Pryor, that one in a million girl who looked a lot like Jean but was not Jean. In fact, when Cyclops once called her Jean, she clocked him good. Cyclops married Madelyne, retired from the X-Men and even had a son. He was available as a type of reserve X-Men member but he effectively graduated and went on to live a happy life. A mutant and a human, living a normal life with a normal job. It was absolutely in keeping with Professor X’s dream.

But in 1986 there was an idea: Beast, Angel, Iceman were just being used in supporting roles in Defenders and Avengers. And Cyclops was still around. Why not create a new X-Men title called X-Factor that brought together those original X-Men and had them refocus on Professor X’s original goal of finding and helping mutants? Writer Bob Layton and artist Jackson Guice pitched the idea to Marvel that they’d bring together the four surviving original members plus a new female member and the idea was given the go ahead. But writer Kurt Busiek argued that they should include Jean Grey.

He had written an angry fan letter to Marvel that was printed in Uncanny X-Men back in 1981 where he was upset that Marvel killed off a beloved character and said he would stop reading the title. In 1986, he was editing the Marvel Age comic. He had created an elaborate story to bring back Jean – that the Phoenix Force hadn’t just possessed Jean Grey but instead made a copy of Jean and masqueraded as her while the original Jean was kept in a stasis cocoon. The idea was approved. It was not the intent of the original writer, Chris Claremont, to bring her back. It was a decision by editorial committee and an aggrieved fan that wanted a character he liked back. When we want a beloved family member back, though, we don’t get that. I’d argue you shouldn’t get it in fiction either, at the very least not without a big cost to be paid. However, the decision was made and the fallout was not small.

cyclops abandons his wife

It essentially ruined Cyclops’ character. Once he heard Jean Grey was back, he left his wife and infant son to return to his old girlfriend. Claremont is on record that this ruined Cyclops as a hero. Even worse, the writers didn’t deal with Madelyne’s reaction or any negative reaction to Cyclops’ action from Jean or his teammates for years. And the decision was quickly made that Madelyne would be turned evil and the son would be taken away to the future. Suddenly, Cyclops didn’t have to even deal with his actions.

But once the decision was made that dead characters could return, the seal was broken. It meant all bets were off. Because while Elektra and Wonder Man were heroes, they were supporting characters. Jean Grey was one of the original X-Men and a major character to bring back. As I mentioned earlier, in the 25 years before Jean Grey was brought back to life, Marvel brought back 2 characters. In the 30 years since? They’ve brought back 70. SEVENTY. And sure, some of those are minor characters and a handful were brought back shortly after their death in a planned story. As in they didn’t retroactively rewrite the past. But with 70, there’s a LOT of retconning, like they did with Jean Grey.

Jean Grey’s resurrection meant that death was close to meaningless. Death, cancer and other serious illness, rape. These are serious real-world issues that have real-world consequences for anyone touched by them. Our fiction SHOULD reflect that. Instead, Jean’s resurrection brought forth a type of stunted adolescence to stories that already exist as power fantasies. Cyclops had graduated and married. He was an adult. But now he was right back where he started. The X-Men just cannot seem to leave the school. Talk about an unintentional metaphor. And if you’re still reading X-Men today, you’d learn that their school is literally in Limbo. An otherwordly dimension where they can stay safe, sure. But it’s called Limbo. And I think to a degree, keeping death from meaning anything keeps all superhero stories in a type of limbo.

Further Reading

x-factor story

I think this article is an extremely interesting behind-the-scenes story that gathers quotes from everyone involved in bringing Jean Grey back. Just a really interesting story.

Here’s a list of superheroes and good guys who died BEFORE Jean Grey returned and have stayed dead:

  1. Ancient One
  2. Uncle Ben Parker
  3. Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell)
  4. Changeling
  5. Executioner (a Thor villain who died heroically)
  6. Gwen Stacy
  7. Howard Stark
  8. Ho Yinsen
  9. Jack Murdock
  10. Jarella
  11. Jean DeWolff
  12. Junior Juniper
  13. Lady Dorma
  14. Maria Stark
  15. Omega the Unknown
  16. Phineas Horton
  17. Powerhouse
  18. Protector
  19. Richard and Mary Parker
  20. Starshine
  21. Union Jack

It’s not an especially long list and many of the characters are not well known except for those whose deaths basically acted as the motivation for a superhero to start their career. Still, they all stayed dead.

Here’s a list of heroic characters who died and came back BEFORE Jean Grey returned:

  1. Wonder Man
  2. Elektra

And finally, here is a list of heroic characters who died and came back AFTER Jean Grey returned:

  1. Ant-Man (Scott Lang)
  2. Ares
  3. Ariel
  4. Aunt May
  5. Banshee
  6. Barney Barton
  7. Betty Ross
  8. Black Bolt
  9. Black Goliath
  10. Brother Voodoo
  11. Bucky
  12. Cable
  13. Captain America
  14. Colossus
  15. Corsair
  16. Cypher
  17. Darkstar
  18. Demolition Man
  19. Doctor Druid
  20. Drax the Destroyer
  21. Fang
  22. Fantomex
  23. Forge
  24. Gladiator
  25. Guardian
  26. Harry Osborn
  27. Havok
  28. Hawkeye
  29. Hellcat
  30. Hercules
  31. Human Torch
  32. Iron Fist
  33. Iron Man
  34. Jack of Hearts
  35. Jennifer Kale
  36. Jacosta
  37. Karnak
  38. Magik
  39. Marinna Smallwood
  40. Mary Jane Watson
  41. Mr. Fantastic
  42. Mockingbird
  43. Moondragon
  44. Ms. Marvel
  45. Namorita
  46. Nick Fury
  47. Nightcrawler
  48. Night Thrasher
  49. Odin
  50. Psylocke
  51. Puck
  52. Punisher
  53. Quasar
  54. Rogue
  55. Scarlet Witch
  56. Sentry
  57. Shaman
  58. Sharon Carter (twice)
  59. Snowbird
  60. Spider-Man
  61. Star-Lord
  62. Stature
  63. Stick
  64. Swordsman
  65. Thing
  66. Thor
  67. Thunderbolt Ross/Red Hulk
  68. Vision
  69. Wasp
  70. Zeus
  • Big Jim

    Good article. It’s something that’s always bugged me, that they diminish the original, classic story by saying “it wasn’t really Jean”, to do something new, and turning Cyclops into a jerk in the process.

    It’s like the sequel to “Highlander”: Even the notion of a sequel tarnishes the original film’s ending. A sequel should add to the original, not take away from it. One of the things I liked about JJ Abrams’ “Star Trek” was that it rebooted the franchise in a way that didn’t dismiss all the tv series and movies that came before.

    It’s too bad the Marvel writers and editors couldn’t find a way to bring back Jean without retconning the story.

  • Chris Piers

    What’s done is done, but in retrospect I think it was a mistake.